Friday, June 15, 2007

Webbed feat.

Okay, I’m pro-brand. A ‘Yes Logo’ kind of guy. But it’s not just because brands pay the dry cleaning bills for all my black turtlenecks. I actually think that brands are the last bastion of accountability between society and corporations. Kind of a thin blue line, on one side of which exists at least the possibility that we can use our wallets to force companies to behave, and on the other side of which lies a kind of marketing anarchy in which we’re deluged with cheap battery-operated mantel clocks made of nuclear waste and mine slag. But let me tell you, it’s lonely work. Nobody wants to hear that brands are to marketing what democracy is to governance. Marketers clap their hands on their ears and make that Jerry Lewis ‘la la la’ noise, while consumers buy copies of Naomi Klein’s book and solemnly park them on a conspicuous shelf so much as to say, “These sneakers aren’t my fault. Nike made me do it.”

Anyway, so I almost flipped past Allan Sloan’s story in the June 4 Newsweek (The Cruncher) when the duck stopped me in my tracks. Aflac’s famous spokes-quacker featured prominently in the picture at the top of the article, entitled “Aflac Ducks a Punch Over Executive Pay”. Huh? Ad ducks? Executive pay? Whaasssuup?

The story in brief: Aflac was to become a target for shareholder activists for how much its executive team is paid, part of the ‘say-on-pay’ movement that’s been sweeping the country in this post-Enron era. Rather than fight about it and cause a big, embarrassing mess, Aflac proactively volunteered to offer its shareholders a say on pay going forward. Nolo contendere. Good for them, but so what, right? Well, so this: It was the writer’s opinion that Aflac capitulated because they didn’t want to risk their famous, well-loved brand. The article begins with the assertion, “When the public face of your company is a duck, you can’t afford to foul up your reputation.” Notwithstanding the Churchillian turn of phrase, I gotta say hell, yeah. He even goes so far as to back his claim up with one of those Newsweeky data boxes, telling us three things: How many years they’ve used the duck in their ad campaign (7), what their brand awareness is (90%), and Aflac’s market cap ($25B).

See, Naomi? Imagine how this would have gone if there had been no brand at stake. Gulfstreams and Centurion Cards for everybody! A Bentley in every parking spot! Solid gold putters and foie gras with your lobster! And, of course, atrophied 401ks for the little guy. But no. Aflac had to do the right thing and, without prejudice to whether they’re actually good folks or not, their brand made them do it.

Sometimes, I want to get all the marketers and all the consumers together and give them big noogies. If companies live up to their brands, people will trust them. And if people insist on brands with integrity, that’s the only kind there will be. And look, Naomi, it didn’t even take me 490 pages to say it.


Meanwhile, the world will awaken tomorrow morning secure in the knowledge that at least one more corporate giant has seen the light. Asked by Newsweek how the duck will vote on the say-on-pay motion at the next shareholders’ meeting, Chairman Don Amos said, “The duck’s the cheapest guy we’ve got working for us – and the most valuable. He’ll just say, ‘Vote yes.’”

Man, I bet Conrad Black wishes he had a duck.

And I think I know why I don’t have that book deal locked up yet.